At first, there were expensive cars. Then came the horses, almost always white, decorated with flowers and glittering golden blankets. For those desirous of even more opulence, elephants with elaborate howdahs, or carriages, were made available. Now, Indian-American brides and grooms have taken to the skies: a dramatic arrival in a helicopter is possible for those seeking that extra Bollywood flavour.
Ruchir Mewawala, 36, isn’t surprised. For more than a decade, Mewawala, a Wall Street executive who became an event manager, has made a living from organising Indian-American weddings. And these uniquely South Asian celebrations of culture, matrimony and money are getting bigger and bigger.
In 2002, when Mewawala and his business partner, Vaishali Sawant, found their company, Rose Events, the average South Asian wedding cost between $50,000 and $60,000. “Now, the industry average for a wedding of 200 to 250 guests for South Asians is probably $150,000,” says Mewawala who organises over 40 wedding each year.
Even if that approximation is on the higher side, typical American weddings tend to be much smaller. In 2012, the average American wedding budget was $28,427, according to a survey of more than 17,500 brides by wedding websites TheKnot.com and WeddingChannel.com.
That’s small change compared to some of Mewawala’s grandest nuptials. “Our most expensive weddings cost about $1.75 million. A couple of others cost an average of $1 million,” he says, sitting in a cafe across the road from his office in the picturesque New Jersey town of Metuchen.
The Indian-American wedding industry is thriving, backed by one-and-a-half generation immigrants and their parents who are splurging on marriages here, instead of flying back to the subcontinent for a more traditional affair
The thought of getting married in India did come up, admits Finny George, 32, and his wife, Anila Varghese, 27, though they almost immediately dismissed the idea. “All the people we grew up with and our families are here,” says George, a doctor.
With Varghese, a pharmacist, and George working full-time, the couple decided to hire a professional to work on their wedding. Although they wanted certain traditions to be followed, much like weddings in India, it wasn’t going to be a run-of-the-mill event. A budget of $150,000 certainly helped.
A similar wedding in India would be much cheaper, though high-end venues are often in demand, particularly during the wedding season, thereby pushing up prices. But add the $2,000 New York-New Delhi return flight ticket and the hassle of inter-continental logistics and a wedding in America also becomes about paying for convenience.
“We have more opportunities, more money and more resources [here] to do the same thing, but at a different level,” says George, who came to the US as a five-year-old. His wife emigrated when she was four.
In many ways, George and Varghese typify the successful first generation immigrants who grew up in the United States — the one-and-a-half generation — that has spawned this booming Indian-American wedding industry. Indian-Americans now comprise about 1 per cent of the total US population and are among the fastest growing ethnic groups in the country. Over 70 per cent of Indian immigrants holds a bachelor’s degree, according to a 2012 Pew Center study, and their median income, at $88,000, is much higher than the national median of $49,800.
Also, 71 per cent of Indian-Americans is married, and only 12 per cent with a spouse of another race. Nationally, about 51 per cent of the US population is married. This affluence and cultural affinity towards marriage has powerfully combined with India’s far-reaching $3 billion film industry, Bollywood.
For many, Bollywood dance nights at college campuses and schools across America, are not only socialising avenues but also about “what it means to be Indian-American”, explains Aswin Punathambekar, associate professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Punathambekar, who specialises in South Asian media and globalisation, saw this being reinforced at an Indian-American wedding he recently attended. “The entire imagination of what a wedding looked like was informed by Bollywood,” he says.
This imagery of Bollywood — complete with ostentatious movie sets and elaborate song and dance routines — has become a lucrative business for the wedding industry.
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Some 10 years after Mehul Patel came to the US from India as a 17-year-old, he quit his job in finance to become a full-time wedding photographer in 2009. Since then, his rates have jumped from $4,000 per wedding to $10,000 for a basic photo and video package. “It’s a complete cinema production,” says Patel, who learnt the craft from his father, a professional photographer in Gujarat. A typical production set-up now uses four or five high-definition cameras, steady cams, gliders and cranes.
Shahid Khan, 31, also moved into wedding industry for the money, despite a successful career as a disc jockey in nightclubs. In 2006, Khan, a first-generation Pakistani immigrant who grew up in Nassau County, swapped late night parties for wedding festivities. “The budget had sky-rocketed,” he says, “In the late 1990s, it used to be between $700 and $800. Now, it’s $5,000 for DJ-ing and lighting.”
Along with rates, tastes, too, have changed. Ram Trivedi, 31, quit his job as an engineer five years ago to design the wedding mandap (canopy). Partnering with his wife, an artist, Trivedi caters to young Indian-Americans who want a contemporary twist to the traditional structure. “We are growing like crazy,” he says.
But in the ’90s, there were few places large enough — or willing — to entertain an Indian wedding. Albert Jasani, a heavyset, middle-aged man with gold-rimmed glasses, saw the opportunity early on. “By 1980, Indians had settled well and there was a second generation over here, and they didn’t want to go back to India,” he says, “So, I thought the future is here.”
In 1995, he began building an Indian wedding hall on the outskirts of Edison. Four years later, he opened Royal Albert’s Palace, a 50,000-square-feet venue that, Jasani claims, costs approximately $12 million. “Business is better than before,” he says as four elderly Indians sit outside his office to book a hall. “We are expanding one more hall; about 10,000-square-foot more.”
Over the last decade, the Indian-America wedding industry has constructed its own unique ecosystem, from exclusive venues to a collection of vendors that caters solely to the South Asian community. On the East Coast, much of this is concentrated around Edison.
But it has also influenced others, including hotels in the tri-state area, which were initially reluctant to host South Asian weddings, says Mewawala. Few could meet the community’s gastronomic requirements, particularly that of the Gujaratis. Also, these hotels hadn’t appreciated the size of the wedding market.
“The only kind of ethnicity they would allow on a Saturday night was a kosher wedding because the Jewish community was spending,” explains Mewawala, “But they didn’t realise that the Gujjus (Gujarati) are the new Jews.”